Making Sympathetic Antagonists

The other day I said on Twitter:

My method of making antagonists: come up with a hurtful behavior & a target, then backfill the history until the antag becomes sympathetic.

It met with some resistance, as people said they find players want one-dimensional villains. But then I said “antagonists” and not “villains.” There is a difference, though I’ll leave that as a thought-exercise for the reader.

In any case, I like antagonists (and villains) to be more than one-dimensional for three reasons:

  • If I understand their internal logic, I can play them consistently.
  • One-dimension people can only be beaten. Complex characters can also be manipulated.
  • Playing one-dimension characters bores the crap out of me.

At the Mage LARP I played in this past Saturday, I was asked to play an NPC that would be harassing one of the PCs. I was told the situation (said PC moved very quickly after a fire in her bar) and the NPC’s belief (that he was pretty sure said PC burned it down for the insurance money). I got to go from there. Oh, and the PC was a totally clueless sleeper.

Given the situation (said PC having moved across state lines), I decided to make him a fraud claims agent for the insurance company. And the STs gave me fairly broad narrative authority[1] to declare things about the situation that would make it complicated. So, with that authority and background, here’s what I had:

Hurtful behavior: figuratively crucify someone you believe to have committed arson

Target: Amber’s character Allison

So, I could be “some asshole that just wants to make someone’s life hell” but I needed more in order to make him feel believable. I didn’t have much to go on, because suddenly I was in character. But I knew that I could backfill the history of this guy and justify why he was an asshole during play.

Oh, and he had a name. I was Agent Frederick Hicks. Because I like naming antagonists after my friends.

The thread of justification:

  • Allison (character) was at her bar, where I walked in and interviewed her about the fire. I was charming and nice enough, but I personally knew that was a front to be disarming.
  • I then asked about her friend in the bar, Charity, by name. Apparently this was exactly the right thing to do, because she (played by my dear friend Jennifer Brozek) was totally paranoid at this point. And said that I would be in touch. Her eyes went wide.
  • At this point, I walked away. I knew they needed time to stew. I didn’t have anything else to do as an NPC, so I went up to the STs are and just watched. Made a little small talk about how I was fucking my friends over, and confirmed that I could do big things, like pull the fire department or play related NPCs that this guy was connected to. The Head ST, Matt, was all for me rolling with it.[2]
  • I still didn’t have the history yet, but I was starting to get the feel for it. I came back, and played out a phone call with Charity, where she was fairly defensive (and a bit rude). I knew that was the catalyst for Bad Things. And I needed a couple minutes to figure out why.
  • My mind worked fast. I decided that this guy was a (quiet) misogynist. And a woman just challenged his authority.
  • That wasn’t enough, though, to not be one-dimensional. I had to understand why, so his behavior wouldn’t just be “uh, because he hates women.” That’s morally equal-weighted to “uh, because he’s evil.”
  • I then walked up, telling them that they got a call from the insurance company that the current policy was under suspension. That was Allison & Charity’s (and, really, Amber & Jenn’s) Oh Shit moment.
  • I knew they were going to start using magick to figure out what the fuck was going on. So I took a step back to finish up the history. I was walking with a cane at the larp, and I decided that Hicks was crippled. Crippled by a famous in-game event that happened years ago. Was a firefighter, saved a famous person’s daughter, like the governor’s. Declared a hero. But his wife still left him when she didn’t want to take care of someone going through intense physical therapy and was scared by the experience. Which turned him into someone bitter. He doesn’t think of himself as hating women, but he does out of a fucked-up vulnerability.
  • I had to add the counterpoint that once he got his job as a fraud claims agent, he was good. Good, and because he was a hero who lost something, others in power sympathized with him and thus he was connected.
  • Admittedly, I hadn’t quite clicked on that one until about five seconds after I walked back in the scene, and said I was a different character, a “guy dressed as a fire chief.” He just walked in the bar, looked around, tipped his hat, and walked out. They were unnerved as all hell. (And for the record, that was the fire chief, but I said “dressed as” because I wasn’t going to give him a speaking role enough to declare it fact.)
  • And to add to the end, and this might have been jumping the shark, he was pretty sore on this one and not thinking clearly because (a) his wife was also named Allison, and (b) he is a self-hating moron who still has his ex-wife on Facebook and recently saw pictures on her wall with her new boy-toy.
  • Which mean suddenly I had history to explain why this guy thought he was right (or, rather, skipped from “strongly suspect” to “guilty under proven innocent”) about Allison burning down her own building. He had sleeper evidence that lead right to her, was damned good at his job, and was in a bad headspace for dealing with someone with the same name as his ex-wife.

That took around two hours, partly formed in response to reactions from Amber & Jenn, partly formed from my own actions and backfilling why they make sense. Sure enough, they used magic to figure out what was up with my character, and Allison (or maybe Amber) was left with an “oh fuck, I’m screwed” feeling.

Later, they figured out how to use my tenaciousness to their advantage. Since my character felt he was right, all they had to do was break him of this notion and he would get set on the next path. So they did their own digging, with magick, and Charity apologized and made herself uncharacteristically humble to a subtle, woman-hating asshole. The end result: they fucking co-opted him, made him someone they could use to do some sleeper policing.

That’s why I play complex characters. So that they can be treated like complex characters and the situations that arise can be dealt with in a number of ways. If I’m running a pulp game, sure, one-dimension villains with faces primed for punching. But for real drama, you have to remember that every character who acts thinks they’re right and have reasons to justify hurtful behavior.

I’m reminded of the first time I saw this that I can recall: In Final Fantasy 8, Seifer (an early-on antagonist) talked about how he was the hero and Squall (your character) was the bad guy. That blew me away. Sure, it didn’t change how I treated Seifer, but it did make that moment awesome.

– Ryan[3]

[1] Do this and I will happily be a vessel for your truth.

[2] Which, incidentally, displays an incredible amount of trust in a large-group dynamic. Something I’ve been pondering since the game for when I write up about my larp experiences thus far.

[3] I swear, I thought this was going to be a shorter post.


4 Responses to Making Sympathetic Antagonists

  1. Lexifab says:

    “One-dimension people can only be beaten. Complex characters can also be manipulated.”

    Thanks for reminding me of this, Ryan. It’s something I have to remember to use when we resume the Burning Empires game I’m GM’ing in February. Great article, man.


    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Great! Good luck with your BE game. I loved the hell out of the game I played in back in ’08.

      – Ryan

  2. Leonard Balsera says:

    This is an awesome way of going about this. My usual method, which I can see as a way of structuring what you’re calling “backfill”, is this:

    * Figure out something that an NPC wants that is a basic human desire (to be loved or accepted, to protect family, to overcome adversity, etc etc).

    * Figure out why this NPC needs that thing

    * Figure out what is not constructive about their approach to getting that thing

    * Figure out what information they lack about their situation

    * Figure out why that lack of information leads them to a non-constructive approach

    It works almost every time, when PCs encounter that guy and then go, “Damn, we can’t hate this guy, because if he only knew what I know, he’d be cool.” Or worse, if they prejudice themselves and then find the information, they go, “Oh, shit, if he’d known, maybe we wouldn’t have had to kill him.” Or whatever.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Yes. This.

      I like this because it shows another way to go about this, and mixing and matching techniques like these make for some amazing things.

      Anyone else have something in their toolbox for this?

      – Ryan